Home ConsumerCulture Paul French, author of City of Devils, on the Shanghai of the 1920s

Paul French, author of City of Devils, on the Shanghai of the 1920s

by Tom Pattinson
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Author Paul French talks to Tom Pattinson about the guns, the girls and the gigs in the debauched city that was Shanghai in the ‘30s as his new crime book City of Devils is released 

Dancers, actors and singers travelled to Shanghai in the 1920s and ‘30s to perform at some of the world’s most stunning dance halls and clubs. The international settlement became home to American merchants, British bullion dealers, White Russian émigrés and Eastern European Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. As a major trade centre, the city was awash with cash, and for many it was a place to come to make their fortune. As an international settlement, it was also relatively easy to run away from a past, to disappear into anonymity in the international community. For two young men, from very different lives, it served both purposes.

Paul French’s new book City of Devils, follows the lives of “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Jewish dancer from Vienna, and Lucky Jack Riley, an escaped convict from America, as they arrive in Shanghai, and their lives gradually intertwine.

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During the interwar years, Joe and Jack rise up to become legends in their own lifetime, running the city’s best parties in the world’s biggest party town. They rise from poverty to become millionaires and – partly through charm, partly through fear – end up running drugs, girls and guns, as well as the clubs. By the late 1930s, as Shanghai’s immunity from the ravages of war gradually erodes, their fortunes fall and they find themselves on the run but with nowhere to go.

City of Devils is set in a similar period to French’s previous work, Midnight in Peking and also lifts the lid on the foreign underbelly of China. This is not the story of well-known characters but people whose names have been lost beneath the rubble and dust of time. The depth of research and the attention to detail that French has achieved was honed from more than a decade of life in the city and many more years uncovering articles and conducting interviews to form what is an incredibly lucid depiction of the period.

The setting for this true crime story is portrayed so vividly the reader is transported to the back street bars of Shanghai’s Badlands. The smell of acrid blue opium smoke wafts out from the moment you open the dust jacket and characters, with Mausers tucked discreetly under an armpit, gently encourage you to turn the next page.

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For anyone interested in crime, or history, or Shanghai then this is a must-read. If you’re interested in all three, then it’s all you can ever ask for in a book. Truly gripping, shocking, exciting and enlightening, French opens doors that have been closed for the best part of a century, and for some, those doors should perhaps have remained closed.

Your last book was set in 1930’s China but in Beijing. This is in Shanghai during the same period, what makes this period of China’s history stick out for you?

Nellie Farren 1929

Nellie Farren 1929

The interwar years all over the world are a honeypot to writers, the 1930s were Auden’s “low, dishonest decade”, and we know it all ends catastrophically with war. China was a massive part of that period – effectively a new republic emerging from the wreckage of a 267-year-old dynasty. The tumult of the warlords’ era gave way to the nationalist government and then, from the early 1930s, there was Japanese interference before war broke out in 1937.

It’s unimaginable now how for that entire period, China was not only weak but on the verge of disintegrating. The Second World War really starts in the summer of 1937 in Beijing and Shanghai – once Japan has attacked those two cities there is no going back. It is all out war with China and then the British Empire and then across the Pacific with America.

It’s unimaginable now how for that entire period, China was not only weak but on the verge of disintegrating.

Secondly, I think we have lost our awareness of the foreign community in China between the wars – perhaps because in Beijing they were sojourners and in Shanghai part of an international concession – not colonies like Hong Kong or Singapore. And after the war we had a great interruption when the bamboo curtain fell until the late 1980s. We’ve forgotten how many foreigners were in China and how multinational and multicultural they were, as well as how diverse they were in other ways (there were plenty of criminals and conmen as well as missionaries and diplomats). As foreigners now our collective memory of our grandfather or great grandfather’s generation in China is largely missing.

You have a family connection to this period, is that right?

My paternal great grandfather joined the Royal Navy in WWI and shipped out to Gallipoli. He survived and decided to re-enlist after the war. He was a stoker – down in the bowels of the ship with no windows shovelling coal into a furnace all day (“Join the Navy and See the World!”). Shanghai was a major coaling station for the Royal Navy China Squadron sailing up and down the China coast. He ensured there was enough coal in Shanghai for the Navy’s needs. In the 1970s, when I was about 6 or 7 he was still alive and living in Tottenham, London. In the summer he’d sit around in his vest, already in his 80s but still strong. An early memory for me is that he had enormous forearms (all that coal shovelling) and up each arm was a vivid Chinese dragon. The dragon looped over his shoulders and then intertwined their tales down his spine. The head of each dragon was on his hand.* It was quite a tattoo, even by the standards of the Royal Navy and entranced me. He’d tell me he had it done in Shanghai. He’d then wink and get a slap from my great grandmother. I didn’t get it at the time but obviously Shanghai held quite a few pre-marriage memories for him.

Later my dad – who wasn’t a great one for travelling and never visited Shanghai – would like to look at books about art-deco architecture and, of course, Shanghai featured a lot. So perhaps sub-consciously that’s how I ended up studying Chinese and spending over a decade in the city.

*I have thought many times over the decades of recreating great grandfather’s tattoo on my own arms but, sadly, completely lack the courage to do so.

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Shanghai seemed unique in the world in that it was at war, but flooded with cash and the party carried on. How did Shanghai end up in this bizarre situation whilst nowhere else did?

Joe Farren

Joe Farren

Yes, Shanghai’s position between summer 1937 and December 1941 was very odd; unique even. In August, Japan attacked the Chinese portions of Shanghai, just outside the foreign concessions (what is now Zhabei and Baoshan). After fierce fighting and stiff Chinese resistance they occupied the Chinese areas. But they did not invade the International Settlement and French Concession of Shanghai – that would have meant effectively declaring war on Britain, America and France. Surrounded by Japanese occupied China and the Huangpu River down to the sea, Shanghai’s foreign concessions were effectively isolated, yet continued to function. This period was called Gudao, or the “solitary/lonely island” period.

In June 1940, after the fall of France, the French Concession fell under the control of the collaborationist Vichy government; and the International Settlement was eventually invaded by Japan minutes after the attack on Pearl. For four and half a years, war raged around Shanghai but Shanghai survived and, arguably for some, thrived. There were a number of reasons for this – ships did still arrive and depart, trade with Hong Kong continued as well as with the Japanese and Free China; Shanghai remained a major banking centre for Asia, especially in gold and copper bullion and various currencies; and, of course, Shanghai was a massive criminal centre – smuggling, drugs, prostitution.

We also have to remember that Shanghai, despite being the product of unequal treaties signed after the First Opium War and semi-colonial, was also a place of refuge – it had offered sanctuary to millions of Chinese from flood, drought, famine and warlords (it is worth remembering that Shanghai was the world’s fifth-largest city in 1940); and many more Chinese wanted intellectual freedom, religious freedom and the right to publish. Several Chinese newspapers based themselves in Shanghai, as well as the film industry and much of the modern intellectual elite. It was also a refuge to tens of thousands of White Russians and, latterly, to European Jews fleeing Nazism. These people did not technically come to China but rather to the foreign concessions of Shanghai where passports and entry visas were not required. That’s a massive and fascinating contradiction about Shanghai – a creation of imperialism that became a place of safety for so many Chinese and foreigners (including the men and, I think, one woman, who established the Chinese Communist Party!).

The book follows the lives of two characters, Jack and Joe. How did you end up deciding on these characters when there were so many to choose from? Did you know from the start they were your focus or did you discover them along the way?

Riley's baseball picture

Jack Riley’s baseball picture

You’re right – there are so many to choose from. I worried City of Devils would become some sort of impenetrable Russian novel with too many characters. But Jack and Joe seemed to me to epitomize two sides of Shanghai’s inter-war demi-monde. Jack was a crook – an escaped convict from the American mid-west who ran bars and slot machines all over town under a false name. Joe was different – a dancer from Vienna who came to Shanghai and created some of the city’s most amazing nightclubs and chorus lines – much of that image of Shanghai dancing girls and nightlife we have from the period was the creation of Joe Farren. But both wanted more – money and power. Shanghai still has a way of doing that to people – it’s a city that’s always brought out the venal side of folk! 

The book cameos a few other well-known Shanghai characters such as Victor Sassoon and gang boss Big Eared Du, were you not tempted to write about better-known characters?

I think people like Sassoon and Big Eared Du Yueshang have been written about a lot. The challenge of all my work is to try and recover lost lives and lost events, usually from the underbelly of Beijing or Shanghai. Actually the reason the foreign criminals in Shanghai prospered so in the Solitary Island period was that Du was gone by then; his Green Gang collapsed – the foreign criminals in the city inherited it all. That’s a much less well known tale. Joe and Jack walked the same streets as Sir Victor and Big Eared Du in the late 1930s and 1940s; everyone knew them, they were always in the papers. Shanghai was a village in many ways, especially among the foreigners. But they’ve been rather lost to history and Sassoon and Du haven’t. It was the same with Midnight in Peking – everyone in Peking in 1937 knew about the Pamela Werner murder; everyone knew her father. But somehow for some reason that whole story got forgotten with war and revolution coming soon after.

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Lucky Jack seemed to come from the wrong side of the tracks, whilst Dapper Joe was the epitome of a gentleman. How did they end up being partners?

Farren's Follies

Farren’s Follies

Money…and a bit of greed. Joe dreamt of running the biggest, swankiest and richest nightclub in Asia. He knew he could do a great floor show, the best music, dancing and food but in Shanghai in the late 1930s the ‘best nightclub’ meant one with a casino. Casinos are expensive to set up – and massive robbery targets so Jack provided the start up cash, the gambling know how and the muscle. It was certainly not a match made in heaven, but it was very much a match made in 1939 Shanghai!

Although they were both working in organised crimes, the reader is obviously rooting for them to succeed. Did you grow attached to them yourself?

Mostly they didn’t do anything I’d consider too bad or wrong – I don’t mind if people want to drink and dance all night, play slot machines, spin roulette wheels or pay to dance with beautiful women (Joe ran very upmarket taxi-dancer operations). Until things got really bad they were not overly violent men though Jack certainly threw a punch and swung a baseball bat occasionally.

We’ve forgotten how many foreigners were in China and how multinational and multicultural they were

Of course, there are some educated guesses in City of Devils as to how they made money and things they got involved in. They may well have rigged boxing matches and dog racing; they certainly participated in illegal gambling and smuggling booze to America during Prohibition. They were probably also involved in smuggling Chinese opium to America to be refined into heroin – this was a massive business in the 1930s and links them to New York and Californian organised crime.

But yes, I like them both – people did at the time. “Dapper Joe” and “Slots King Jack” were seen as successful self-made men, charmers who’d both kissed the Blarney stone and knew how to get good publicity. They dressed well, drove smart cars, lived in fancy apartments, made a lot of money, loved beautiful women, ran amazing nightclubs. They were a class act.   

The criminal underworld and the cultural and business elite seemed to be very intertwined in those days. How socially acceptable was it for these two groups to rub along so closely? Or was that no different from say east London in the 1960s?

Vertinsky’s Gardenia Club

Politics, business and the slightly shadier side of things intermingled very closely in Shanghai. In, as you suggest London in the 60s, this happened between the Establishment, the new worlds of TV, fashion and gangsterism, but behind closed doors largely. In Shanghai it was always wide open – making money was number one; how you made it a very secondary concern. Madame Chiang Kai-shek loved to dance to Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentleman, the house band at Joe Farren’s Canidrome Ballroom. A lot was tolerated because the Shanghailander elite and wealthy Chinese in the Settlement were so involved. It also helped that Shanghai had a messy and complicated justice system and, by the late 1930s due to stagflation and rising crime, a very corrupt and increasingly ineffectual police force.

Were you shocked by some of the research you discovered about this period? Any specifics that stand out?

We all know Shanghai was a wild town – nightclubs stayed open till dawn; women, drugs… pretty much everything was for sale. But sometime you get a surprise. One woman (who was in fact English and a member of Britcham then) opened a brothel on Avenue Joffre (now the Huai Hai Road). Nothing immediately unusual – Shanghai had hundreds of them. This one was a bit different though – it catered to bored ex-pat housewives, opened in the afternoons and was staffed by very good-looking Latin lovers from the city’s Spanish and Argentine community. Husband always travelling or gets back late and tired? – this was the place for you. Shanghai had a few places like this but then there’s another twist – a very Shanghai twist I think. She had all the rooms rigged up with cameras, took photos of the afternoon trysts and then blackmailed the women clients with the photos!

By 1940 it was also getting so tough economically in Shanghai that you could hire a hitman for about twenty pounds (in today’s money) and the police were so overstretched they hardly even bothered to investigate the murders – that was very tempting to many people!

Why were the powers that be so inept at stopping the gambling, whoring and drug dealing that was going on?

Slot machines at the Arcadia Russian Restaurant & Nightclub 1940

Slot machines at the Arcadia Russian Restaurant & Nightclub 1940

Well, there was nothing they could do. The vast majority of late 1930s vice in Shanghai took place in the Western Roads District (around what is now Huashan Lu, Jiangsu Lu, Panyu Lu etc). This area had been a rather leafy suburb of Shanghai, though just outside the borders of the International Settlement and Frenchtown. It became known as “The Badlands”. The police had limited to no powers there; the Japanese allowed it all to happen in return for “taxes”. Criminals pursued in the Settlement simply went to the Badlands.

Also, Shanghai had extraterritoriality in the Settlement – each country had its own court. It’s complicated and confusing but, basically, if you could hide your nationality you could escape justice.

launchpad gateway

The book is incredibly well researched. How did you go about getting so much information? The locations, the details, the visual descriptions of the bars?

Well, it’s a lifetime of research really. Several decades of reading, studying and living in Shanghai – old newspapers, memoirs, photo archives. Slowly trying to build up a picture of old Shanghai at this time and then honing it down to a story over 300 pages. People at the time knew these were amazing times they were living in, in an incredible place, in some brilliant venues, so they wrote their impressions, took photos. The newspapers recorded and photographed everything. Shanghai loved, and loves, celebrity and gossip so the papers (which were often wonderfully tabloid) recorded crimes, murders, nightclub scandals, court cases in minutiae and at great length. It’s a wonderful treasure trove when you add in all the old police and Special Branch reports. There’s a million great books in all that.  

It seems that all of the characters were actually real people, how did you get so much detail on them?

Buck and the Harlem Gentleman at the Canidrome

Buck and the Harlem Gentleman at the Canidrome

As above – over years. There are not many actual witnesses left nowadays but they had children and grandchildren. Because I write and blog about this period a lot people will contact me for help to track down their old family house in Shanghai or their grandparents old shop, etc. I’m happy to do it in return for any anecdotes, letters, photos. Over the years that become quite a lot. Nowadays you can access ship logs to see when people came and went from Shanghai, passport applications, births, death, marriages, online newspapers. It’s so much easier now but there is a bit of information overload if you just dive in without any focus.

There are passages in the book such as when describing Vertinsky – “He blinked noticeably slower than most people, the languid eyelid flicker of the cokehead. It was disconcerting all the same, along with his propensity to let his head droop forward and then suddenly snap back up and stare straight at you.” These bits of detail are throughout the book, giving so much personality to the characters. Are these all artistic license or is that actually based on something?

Paramount Peach chorus line 1

Paramount Peach chorus line

Well, I do write literary fiction about criminals so there are some leaps required. Ask any of my characters what happened and they surely deny everything of course.

The descriptions of Alexander Vertinsky – a great White Russian singer and entertainer who owned the Gardenia nightclub on the Great Western Road (Yanan Xi Lu) – comes from someone who knew him and left a record. That person, another White Russian, left Shanghai in 1949 and went to America. They wrote their memoirs and published them in Russian. A Russian guy interested in Shanghai posted them and told me I might like them. Hours ensue with Google Translate and then I find out Vertinsky blinked slowly due to his massive cocaine habit. A lot of my life is like that – chasing down details. Perhaps it’s silly – I should just write fiction but the real people are crazier. If I made it up you’d never believe it but here they are, with sources for their anecdotes and pictures of them. You never need to make up people in old Shanghai.

I spent a lot of time with maps whilst reading, looking up Great Western Road and Avenue Haig and Avenue Joffre, until I had a clear idea of where these places were. Are any of these clubs or streets still in any way similar today to then?

The basic street pattern of Shanghai is the same today as it was in 1940 – fortunately the city wasn’t bombed in WW2 and, despite massive development, the streets are mostly the same. This isn’t true for the massive longtang networks of shikumen and lilong architecture, which has disappeared, and continues to disappear, at a catastrophic rate. That is the great sadness of Shanghai – the French Concession and Settlement are still being destroyed – Hongkou and Yangpu particularly brutally. The current bulldozing of the Laoximen district will mean that, effectively, the entire old town of Shanghai has now been eradicated. I personally don’t see what replaces it as an improvement. I think one day young Shanghainese will look at old pictures of their city and ask ‘why?’ It’s also important to remember that the longtang housing system – the networks of lilong alleys and shikumen housing – is unique to Shanghai. When the last one goes (and that will probably be within the next decade) it will be architectural extinction – there will be nowhere else in the world you can go to see this form of architecture. To me, a lover of the built environment, this is equivalent to slitting the throat of the last panda.

People at the time knew these were amazing times they were living in, in an incredible place, in some brilliant venues

So the streets are there, and a dwindling number of buildings. There’s maps and old/new street name guides in the book for anyone that wants to go exploring. And for anyone that really wants to track streets down I did publish The Old Shanghai A-Z some years ago that lists every street with both old and new names and what was on it, all the Settlement, Frenchtown and the Western and Northern External Roads (just in case you thought I wasn’t obsessed enough about Old Shanghai).

Your last book Midnight in Peking will soon be on our screens as a TV series. When is that expected to be and can we expect the same for City of Devils (i.e. is this series two?)

Paul French

Paul French

Nellie Farren 1929Quite possibly – Kudos Film & TV in London, who hold the TV rights to Midnight in Peking have also bought City of Devils. We have a script (from the brilliant Richard Warlow who created and wrote Ripper Street for the BBC) and a star attached to the TV show of Midnight in Peking but the wheels move slowly – but they are still moving! I would love to see City of Devils turned into a TV show – my elevator pitch (as they say) was that it was “Boardwalk Empire Far East” and that seemed to work.

Will there be another one from this era of China?

I want to go on and look at the crazy time in Shanghai after the war – around 1947/1948. America liberated Shanghai; the city held trials of the collaborators and Japanese; the civil war restarted and Shanghai became a giant black market. The neon glamour of the 1930s was gone; the economy was tough; GIs were everywhere and crime was rampant. The foreign gangs that had survived the war resurfaced. Also, as the communists approached, all those stateless and passport-less Russians and Jews had to work out a way out of China. For those men and women with criminal records, dodgy pasts, this was not easy. I have a number of murders and other crimes I think are linked and I want to go back to that world. I’m taking a break in August after launching City of Devils in the US and UK and then diving into grubby and seedy 1947 Shanghai – can’t wait!

This article was edited for clarity. ‘City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir’ published by Riverrun is out now and available at Amazon.co.uk

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